Sunday, 28 February 2010

Points On A Curve No 3: A Little House In Atlantis

A quote from a previous entry, to serve as a Reader's Warning - "Here then, by way of illustration, will be "my" Aquaman, and it's a character composed of brief comic book moments, images taken somewhat out of context, and suppositions barely supported by evidence. On reflection, this Aquaman bears no relation to any canon, not of today or any past era, and it ignores great swathes of work by very able creators; not because their work was poor, but because it didn't strike a chord with me, or perhaps because I never even read their work. My Aquaman isn't owned by any corporation, open to any critic's challenge, or amendable as a concept even by myself. Which, counter-intuitively, makes "my" Aquaman all the more real to me."

1. Aquaman The King Of Where You Say?

If Superman must come from a distant world, and of course he must, it would be laughable if it were decided that he should now have been rocketed from Vulcan, or Barsoom. If Batman must be the champion of a crime-ridden city, then it makes no sense to displace his mission to Manchester or Chicago. And if Aquaman ought to be a King, and we've discussed how he ought to be a king, then he ought to be the King Of Atlantis.

2. Atlantis, Atlantis, They Named It More Than Twice

There's a problem with the name "Atlantis" in the DC Universe. It means too many things. The popular concept of Atlantis is that it's a single city, and, originally, in the DC Universe, it was exactly that; one single submarine city. Then, very quickly, 'Atlantis' referred to several cities, appearing in different comics issued by separate DC Editorial offices, and there was an Atlantis inhabited by mermen and merwomen, and there was the Atlantis of Aquaman, and there were other towns and cities called Atlantis that appeared and disappeared whenever writers needed a sunken city of their own. It's all rather confusing if you like your fictional universes all neat and sorted, or, indeed, even if you don't.

(But then, if you take a read of Plato, you'll note that his Atlantis doesn't match the popular perception of it as being a single city either. Plato's Atlantis is a state centred on an island in the North Atlantic, with a "mighty host" as an army and an empire stretching along the North African shore from Libya to Egypt. So the idea of Atlantis has always been more complicated than might be thought.)

And despite its many attempts to simplify and streamline its continuity, DC still has a host of geographical locations called Atlantis, or related to Atlantis, or relying on an association with Atlantis to establish their identity. Aquaman's home is still often referred to as Atlantis, yet in fact his home city has been long established as being called Poseidonis, the greatest city of the Atlantean state. And there are also the 5 lost cities of Atlantis, sigh, and the original twelve tribes of Atlantis, and the 4 great religions of Atlantis, and by this time my head isn't so much spinning as utterly disinterested. I can't help it, I am already losing the will to go on. For the way of continuity is to pile up detail upon detail upon detail and then try to reconcile any contradictions between all of that detail with, yes, more detail. And I don't think, as I've been saying in these "Points On A Curve" entries, that that's how we build an emotional fondness for a character.

So for the sake of this entry, and in the name of simplicity, Aquaman's home city will be called "Atlantis", and the land and cities beyond the city boundaries will simply be the Atlantean State. Any other great cities within that Atlantean State will be simply called, for example, "Atlantis-Basilia" or "Atlantis-Tritonis" or whatever, which will immediately and effectively explain their relationship to Arthur the King.

3. Did You Wanna Go To Atlantis?

I never wanted to visit Aquaman's Atlantis when I was a kid. I wonder if many readers did. It wasn't that I sat around and made a list of comic-book locales that I wanted to see and, having ranked them in order of choice, put Atlantis at the bottom of the list. It was worse than that. I never even thought of Atlantis as being uninteresting, for it was so uninvolving that I never even thought about it at all. Atlantis was a just a place under the water somewhere, a domed city that Aquaman and his familiar supporting cast swam before, and all that I ever registered of it were those few lead characters wandering across the page and never the city itself that their affairs were often played out within.

Atlantis was a indistinct blur, a dull collection of stereotypical representations of whatever ill-thought idea "Atlantis" was at that particular moment. It might be Atlantis as a small domed farming town, or Atlantis as a vaguely Star Trek-esque city of the future, all skyscrapers and sweeping distant going-nowhere freeways. Sometimes it was a big city, sometimes small: sometimes broad at its base and squat, sometimes not unlike Kandor in Braniac's bottle, tall elongated buildings reaching precariously high from their narrow foundations.

And if Atlantis itself was ever-changing and yet never distinct, so its people lacked a fixed and coherent identity. Sometimes the citizens were vaguely reminiscent of Ancient Greeks or Romans, sometimes they were swimming-trunk-wearing members of what seemed to be a 1950's white-suburban water-sports society. All too often, the Atlanteans seemed to have stepped off the set of a cheap TV space opera. Then, as time past, the standard science fiction clothes from central casting were occasionally supplemented by a job lot of "Romans-And-Barbarians" costumes from Late Antiquity. Add in a few walk-through appearance by mermaids, barbarians, and an ever increasing presence from superhero central, and there are the peoples of Atlantis. Except that, of course, they're not there at all.

For those people always looked so dull and uninteresting. Even when they appeared to be capable of pointing a mean ray gun or swinging a mighty why-doesn't-it-rust sword, there was little sign of class, or gender, or race, or age, or individual character. Just as the city faded indistinctly out of one never-nailed appearance into another, so its people too never came into focus. Looking back, I suspect that if Aquaman had been a TV show, the directors would be deliberately keeping their camera lenses tightly pinpointed at the faces of their leads, while forever blurring any shot when the hazy painted sets and knock-off furniture and unconvincing walk-on actors threatened to peak out from behind the talking heads.

4. Where We Went On Our Holidays

But I always knew if I was in Kirby's Asgard. Or O'Neil's underground cities around the Blackhole Bypass. Or Motter and the Hernandez Brothers' Radiant City. Or Totleben and Bissette's Louisiana swamps. Or McCloud's art-deco utopias and suburban sprawls from Zot.

But Atlantis. Take away the fact of a dome resting on the
flat, featureless bottom of a sea and I have no idea what Atlantis looks like, or feels like.

And even that dome keeps constantly changing shape.

5. That Imaginary Kingdom That No-Ones Ever Really Imagined

You might ask why it matters whether Atlantis is a convincing locale. And I would answer that, on a purely emotional level, I have always enjoyed the chance to wander around fictional environments. And if a place feels real enough for me to imagine visiting there, then the adventures set there will obviously feel more involving. I'll become less of a passive spectator and far more of a participant.

And if I want to believe in a King, then he needs to have a Kingdom, and I need to believe in that Kingdom too.

6. Let's Go To Gotham, Daddy, Mummy, take us to Mega-City One

Baudelaire believed that modern cities could be stultifying environments where the routines and facts of urban existence could deaden the observer's mind. His method for seeing through the city's nullifying surface to the more interesting world beneath was the flaneur, the gentleman's stroll without purpose, whose purpose was to observe the city rather than simply pass through it. In essence, argued Baudelaire, the city was a fascinating, many-faceted world, but it needed to be approached with a careful, detached eye.

If we gentlefolk of superhero comic books were to attempt a flaneur through our various beloved fictional cities, what would we notice that marked each one out as unique and interesting? And what we would find if we wandered through Atlantis?

a. The Superhero City Because Of An Artist's style And A Familiar Locale

Sometimes, a superhero's city is made special and unique by the work of a particular artist. Our pre-existing knowledge of a city is modified and made particular to a character by an artists stylistic choices and ticks. Consider how Ditko turned New York into a world perfectly suited to Spider-Man, all roof-tops crowded with chimneys and water-towers and sky-lights, a spin on the familiar that means we always know specifically where it is we're looking at, and where we looking is always perfectly appropriate for Peter Parker's adventures. A more recent example of this can be found in, for example, Alex Maleev's take on Daredevil, where photographs of NYC are treated and used as dark seedy city backgrounds over which the costumed super-people tumble and punch.

b. The Superhero City Invented From Scratch And Recognisable Through Its Architecture And Mood

But of course superhero locales don't all need to be recognisable versions of modern day cities. Yet even futuristic cities need to be characterised by a unique and consistent - if often ever-evolving - architectural style which informs the reader when and where they are even when familiar landmarks can't be seen. Judge Dredd's Mega-City One functions in this fashion. Even when the reader can't see, for example. the colossal Statue Of Judgement, they always know what kind of city they're in. Mega-City one is therefore more than its individual landmarks, it's the combination of its huge towering round-topped city-blocks, it's crash-barrier-less highways curving across the sky, it's hopeless slums deep in the shadows of the overcity, all clothed in darkness, coated in filth and characterised by hopelessness. A perfect, and perfectly recognisable, environment for a futuristic lawman to struggle with futuristic crime against.

c. The Superhero City Marked By Its' Identifiable Landmarks

Then there are those places where we can recognise a small number of fixed and specific landmarks even if the wider world around those isn't so distinctive. Consider Chris Sprouse's portrayal of "The Stronghold" of Tom Strong on Millenium City's Anvil Street. That huge golden statue of Tom overlooking the art-deco city while the high cable cars swing too and fro before it immediately marks out for the reader where they are, and what status Tom Strong has there.

Perez's Avengers' Mansion, the Edith Wharton-era townhouse with the super-hero portraits on every inch of every wall. Ditko's Greenwich Village home for Dr Strange. The Daily Planet building topped by that huge beringed globe. The comic-book city is constructed around such key landmarks, which we, on our saunters, would seek out as all good tourists must.

d. The Superhero City Marked By Its Recognisable Mood

Finally, we have those bases of superhero operations where the mood is everything. Gotham City itself is always malign and hopeless, whether we see it portrayed as an everyday American city or some futuristic or Gothic representation of such. Gotham is Gotham because its despairing mood is all. In Frank Miller's and Dave Mazzucchelli's "Batman: Year One", we see nothing of Gotham that looks any different from, say, everyday Chicago or New York. But the atmosphere is constantly and consistently intensely oppressive. As James Gordan rides the train into Gotham, the panels are as bled of colour as they could be: it's as if a pea-souper smog had invaded everywhere at Gotham's ground level, and Gordon's narration underlines the theme of despair; "Gotham City. Maybe it's all I deserve now. Maybe it's my time in Hell."

e. And All Of The Wonders Above Together

In reality, of course, all the four methods of making a fictional city distinct and appropriate to its heroes tend to be combined in practise to one degree to another. But can we recall many - if any - examples of Atlantis being given such a 'distinct and appropriate' identity? Has any one artist ever created a definitive Atlantis? Has an architectural style been constructed to allow Atlantis to be signified to the reader? Have any distinctive and consistent landmarks been established? Is there a specific mood that's been associated with Atlantis that's pertinent to Aquaman's adventures there?

Yet worlds we want to visit and revisit time after time after time have key landmarks we want to experience. Writers and editors may now often see such landmarks as objects to destroy to raise the stakes of jeopardy, but we wanderers of the superhero cities on our flaneur would like to, say, walk the long walk out to the X-Mansion in Westchester County and not find it long bordered up and abandoned. We'd appreciate it if Avengers Mansion was still solid and functioning. We want a world we recognise, so that we can better understand and empathise with what happens there.

But if Atlantis was destroyed, how, beyond its' crater and the absence of a vaguely city-like city, would we know? What buildings would there be to mourn the loss of?

And so why should we care if we never get to wander there again? We've got lots of other places to wander around. Like gentlefolk.

7. Born In A Light-House, Rests On A Throne

I can recall just one moment when it I was convicned that Atlantis is a wondrous place, and that effect was achieved not by showing me the physical appearance of the undersea city, but rather what it meant emotionally to Aquaman. In "Super-Friends" # 27, Aquaman is taking his fellow cartoon-series stars to his home " .... Poseidonis, the Greatest City of Atlantis!" It's not a melodramatic scene at all, just a quiet few pages where Aquaman ruminates on his past and his feelings. But between a disciplined script from E. Nelson Bridwell and some lovely expressive art from Ramoda Fradon, we get a strong sense of how much Atlantis, and in particular Poseidonis, means to Arthur Curry. (The script is a wonder of concision, giving a touching summary of Aquaman's origin and background in three - just three - panels!) And Aquaman is obviously immensely proud of Poseidonis, and immensely fond of his friends and family who live there. He explains how his mother and father died, and how his half-brother loathes him; Aquaman's wistful expression as he says this and looks forward to the city said to me that he was utterly alone before he found Poseidonis, and that this city had been his saviour. Home, at last.

So to me, that's what Atlantis is, the city where Aquaman found shelter and succour when everything else was lost. That's what Atlantis means. It's home, the adored home of a lonely refugee and a weary exile. It's a wonderful place.

And when one day Atlantis is given its mood, it's landmarks and its own architectural style, that's the Atlantis I hope I'll see.

8. We Like To Be There When We Can

So, if Aquaman is the King Of Atlantis, then his relationship with his city needs to be a far more positive one than is so often depicted. If Atlantis is the city and the nation which sheltered Aquaman when he had nowhere else to go, then as a King he should be her unabashed and fond protector. Atlantis should function as an ideal to Aquaman as much as a physical place, in the way that America still is to so many immigrants today. Atlantis should be Ellis Island and The Statue Of Liberty, the Empire State Building and Ground Zero at The World's Trade Centre, those places which speak of Empire and haven and the sacrifices of power. Because that's what Atlantis was to Arthur, and I think that Aquaman would be incapable of denying others the shelter and the opportunities that he's so benefitted from.

Atlantis is a city not on a hill, but under the sea. It's a symbol of hope, and of inclusion, and of a modernity tempered with respect for tradition. If it has its mystic tombs and magical cults of evil wizards, its warlords and seperatists - and it would need to in order to generate conflict for story-telling - it has more humanists and teachers, peace-keepers and bridge-builders.

It's a good place to live and a fine neighbour to have, even if there are some strange and dangerous things that sometimes go on there. It's a place you would like to visit, perhaps even stay. You'd be proud to have your kids study there, you'd want your nation allied to it, and you'd be disturbed if you heard of some subterreanen lizard cult gaining influence there.

9. The Wider Geo-Political Implications Of The Emotional State Of Atlantis

In Points On A Curve 2, we discussed how well Aquaman's Atlantis suited the role of "Sworn protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states". An Atlantis taking an active, leading part in a vast undersa alliance would be perfectly in keeping with Arthur's awareness that the life of the exile and the immigrant is a thankless one. Haven't superheroes always been concerned with protecting the weak against the strong? It would be the external expression of his internal self for Aquaman to led such a protectorate. And as "Aquaman: Sword Of Atlantis" showed us, the world beneath the waves is a damn dangerous one. Atlantis as a benign Rome facing the truly-barbarian hordes? (Especially when many of the barbarians would no doubt come from the great nations of the overseas world.) Why not? It feels as if it makes sense.

And it's not as if Peter David hadn't already focused on the potential for Atlantis and the undersea world to be a military power, David, after all, had Aquaman and his allies beating off an alien invasion without any help from topside of the waves. When the BEM's arrive, it's to Aquaman and his men and women the world would look to first to wheel out the big arms and the big armies.

10. Imperial Atlantis

And here the nature of this Atlantis certainly does throw up some hints about what Atlantis's political form and physical appearance might be. A state at the heart of a substantial military-alligned confenderation has several options of how to play its role, and Imperial Athens offers the best "how-not-do-it" example. In the wake of the Persian Invasions of Ancient Greece, from 490 to 480 BC, Athens organised the Athenian League, a mutual-defence pact between 140 Greek cities. Although Athens was the preminent power in the League, decisions were made on democractic basis of one-state, one vote, and the League's common treasury was held on the religiously important and politically unimportant island of Delos.

But as time passed, Athens decided that the League's taxes should go to herself, and the Treasury itself was removed from Delos. Soon taxes raised from military allies were being spent on great building projects in Athens and any city-state who objected, or even tried to resign from the League, felt the alliance's might turned against them. Athens in her arrogance went from first-among-equals to Imperial overlord, and the seeds of her own eventual fall were sown.

Being at the centre
" ... of over fifteen thousand submarine states" would be a wieghty responsibility as well as a great honour for Atlantis, and a great temptation too. The moment the Imperial monuments start going up in Atlantis is the moment after the rot has settled in.

But a militarised Imperial Atlantis would still be an interesting place to visit. Even if the surface world as well as the undersea confederation was witholding its taxes, and King Aquaman was in hiding secretely planning a war on the generals who'd seized power in his city.

The King's city.


Friday, 26 February 2010

Points On A Curve No 2: The King Is Not Dead, Long Live The King

A quote from the previous entry, to serve as a Reader's Warning - "Here then, by way of illustration, will be "my" Aquaman, and it's a character composed of brief comic book moments, images taken somewhat out of context, and suppositions barely supported by evidence. On reflection, this Aquaman bears no relation to any canon, not of today or any past era, and it ignores great swathes of work by very able creators; not because their work was poor, but because it didn't strike a chord with me, or perhaps because I never even read their work. My Aquaman isn't owned by any corporation, open to any critic's challenge, or amendable as a concept even by myself. Which, counter-intuitively, makes "my" Aquaman all the more real to me."

1. What's An Aquaman For?

Super-hero. King. Crime-fighter. Outcast and pariah. Warrior-Monarch. Mystic, 'Waterbearer'. Husband, father, friend, mentor. Environmentalist. Lonely guy, angry guy, abandoned guy.

Who is this Aquaman and what is he for?

2. Finding The King At The End Of The World

The first time I ever believed Aquaman was a King, rather than just accepting the fact, was in Grant Morrison's JLA #41: all the peoples of the world have been driven insane with war-madness by Mageddon and on Venice Beach, fighting breaks out between enraged soldiers and the super-heroes who can't hold the chaos back. Zantanna shields the Black Canary as the sands around them are raked with bullets, the Ray is shot from the sky and believes himself about to die. And, as is the way of these things, all order and hope is lost.

And then.

An Atlantean war machine rises above the waves. From within, the amplified voice of King Arthur Of Atlantis breaks across the beach. The soldiers pause from their carnage.

"Lay down your arms! I'm serious and I have the firepower to prove it! Sworn protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states. My territory surrounds every continent on the planet. I rule most of this planet's surface and almost all of its depths. So don't even think about picking a fight with the King Of Atlantis."

3. The Legal Authority And The Serious Firepower Of The King Of The Seven Seas

My first reaction to this scene was purely emotional. I laughed, and I felt proud of Aquaman. I'd never conceived of the character in the way Morrison, and artist Howard Porter, presented him, but it was as if I had and that someone else had overheard my thoughts and put them down on paper. For I'd always thought that DC's Atlantis ought be a world super-power, and I'd many times imagined Arthur being not a barbarian warrior, but a soldier wielding might through judgement and strategy. And here he was. This was the Aquaman leading a technologically advanced armada into war. This was the Aquaman wielding the legal authority to wage war in defence of a coalition composed of many thousands of undersea states all less powerful than Atlantis, all united in common cause.

It was, perhaps, yet another example of Grant Morrison throwing into his scripts quick redefinitions of characters, as if the Scotsman was permanently scared that he'd never get round to using all the bright ideas he'd generated.

And it all made perfect emotional sense to me. It felt right. And then, after the feelings, came the thinking. Why did this strike such a chord with me? I have little sympathy for the Warrior-Monarch take on Aquaman, the grimly pulpy, sword'n'sorcery Aquaman, the hand-eaten-by-piranhas Aquaman. That Aquaman smelt too much to me of
editorial-anxiety, of the grafting-on of current trends onto a character who'd never sat too well with angst before. In fact, the more Aquaman was deluged by ill-fortune - by his lost wife, his dead son, his alienated people, his disillusionment's, his estranged foster son, by his mutilation - the less I could see of Aquaman. The endless tragedies didn't make him more interesting, didn't broaden the character's appeal or deepen his identity. They obscured him.

Aquaman had disappeared for me under the rust of layers and layers of angst and misery and miscalculation and misfortune. After awhile, all I could see was the beard and the hook, the grimace and the canyon-deep frowns. If I looked really hard enough, I still couldn't see the King Of The Seven Seas. I couldn't see Aquaman at all.

For all I admired the craft and sincere good intentions of his creators. I couldn't see Aquaman at all.

4. The Bluff Of Kings

There's an alternative reading to Morrison and Porter's Venice Beach scene. After all, we're only actually shown one war-machine and one troop of "submarine" warriors. Perhaps Aquaman is actually pulling a tremendously daring bluff here? Perhaps it's not that Morrison has sneaked in one of his characteristic re-imaginings of a major character, perhaps there isn't a "protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states". Perhaps it's just that Arthur is a bright, brave man who puts himself - and his soldiers - into a war zone in order to face down fighting-mad armies? Perhaps this is an Arthur Curry who's so used to the exigencies demanded of power that he can deliberately play the role of peace-maker cloaked as a war-monger? Not grim and gritty, but playing grim and gritty.

And it was there that it struck me. For as long as I could remember, the character of Aquaman had been the prisoner of the roles he'd been editorially-mandated to play. If Arthur was a King, then he was hemmed in by the role of King, as if he was a helpless figure fated to stand still while his subjects revolted, his enemies plotted, his destiny closed in on him. When Arthur lost his hand, we saw not a man who rose above tragedy, but a man shattered by it, a man so fundamentally changed by his loss that his very personality degenerated. His marriage collapsed when his son was lost, and again Arthur was a victim. Rather than being allowed to take charge, to work with his wife to rebuild his family, to comfort each other through their loss, Arthur was pushed away by his distraught wife. And when - one of many - reconciliations occurred, it didn't show anything other than "love overcoming". The chance to show Arthur and Mera working hard to rebuild their world was never the central point of the narrative. But chance and sentimentality and the accident of 'love' don't create a hero or a heroine. Hard work and bravery do.

Arthur Curry, Aquaman, has too often been a victim. And though one can feel sympathy for victims, it's hard to admire them. Heroes shouldn't be constantly running from persecution, or trapped for years as living water, or mutilated and traumatised, or even living their lives in the undersea suburbs of small American cities.

Not if they're super-heroes and Kings.

And Grant Morrison's Aquaman was a super-hero and a king. The world is ending, the Apocalypse is here, and he's determined to put his own body on the line in order to secure a beach-head of peace. Perhaps he playing an elaborate and brave bluff. Perhaps he's as hard as nails and has at last created a political-military alliance which allows him to act as a major player on the world stage. Perhaps its a mixture of the two.

But he's not a victim. Because he's not a victim.

5. Not Broken, No Need To Fix

The worst thing about monarchies in comic-books is that most writers have no idea how to write them. In their search for conflict which can be used to ratchet up the angst suffered by their lead characters, a Monarchy is too vulnerable a status quo for writers not to disrupt. If Asgard exists, then Odin must stumble, Thor must be exiled, Asgard must fall, and then Thor will return. The Monarchy itself, such a rich seed-bed for epic stories, endlessly becomes reduced to a soap-opera mechanism, creating easily-sparked character conflict that will always end in the same way: the King or Prince is exiled, the Kingdom is threatened, the King or Prince returns.

But after awhile, this cycle breeds weariness, familiarity and even contempt. How many times must Hippolyta, Odin, or Zeus, miscalculate before we conclude that they're fools and unworthy of our affection? And how many times must Atlantis reject to one degree or another Aquaman before we decide that either the Atlanteans aren't worth of our heroes' affection, or, even more dangerously, that our hero isn't worth our respect either?

Too many writers and editors can't resist breaking things just because it generates a little heat. And eventually, when just about everything that can be broken has been broken, the only step left can appear to be to change, for example, Aquaman into a monstrous "dweller in the darkness", and then kill him. Still a victim.

But the character never was broken.

6. A Distrust Of Kings

It's no surprise that the most convincing portrayals of monarchies in superhero comics come from British creators, such as Paul Jenkins and the Ablett/Lanning team with The Inhumans and Neil Gaiman on The Sandman, or from American creators, such as Priest and Hudlin, who have a stake in making sure that their kingly character isn't demeaned. The Brits are stepped in myths of monarchy, of Kings who will return. The Americans have a stake in positively representing Wakanda's monarchy, because that fictional nation's political system is perceived to be intertwined with respect for an important Black character.

Elsewhere, I wonder if American creators instinctively distrust the very idea of a benevolent and competent monarchy. Certainly, the British Monarchy and the person of King George III plays the role of antagonist in the myths and legends of the American Revolution. And monarchies have traditionally stunk of the past to Americans, of previous and discarded political systems replaced by and improved upon by American democracy. It may be that American creators consciously or subconsciously feel awkward presenting a modern day monarchy in a positive light. After all, as Thomas Paine said "England ... hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones ..". And that's true; there's always been far, far more bad kings and queens than good ones. Perhaps it feels wrong to suggest that a monarchy could ever be a viable, acceptable system. God knows, in reality I have no sympathy with monarchies, aristocracies, tyrannies, dictatorships and their brethren. But there are ways to allow Aquaman to stay a monarch - and be a successful and humane monarch - without offending anyone's political sensibilities.

Arthur could be a constitutional monarch. He could be a state figurehead, responsible for advising the nation, representing it in public, and assuming key responsibilities at times of crisis. In such a way, Aquaman could 'rule' over a people - from Atlantis or across a wider area of the submarine world - while co-existing with democratic rights. (He could even be tasked with the job of protecting the rights of the people when they're encroached upon by government.) Or Aquaman could be, as he was when he first became the King Of Atlantis, an elected monarch, . (There were 13 Polish Kings elected by elements of the Polish people in the late middle-ages, for example. Being a King was not there a matter of absolute power, and rule wasn't passed down to the King's biological successors.) Or Aquaman could take responsibility for some aspect of Morrison's undersea protectorates, securing the peace legitimately without taking absolute power himself.

And there are examples of admirable monarchs in history. Not many, I will readily admit, as a good democrat should, but a few; Alfred The Great, such a brave man constantly losing and brilliantly learning and fighting back against fearsome odds; Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and Emperor and relentlessly warring prince; Cincinnatus, dictator of Rome, called twice to supreme power during nightmare disasters, twice saving the day and then twice abandoning office to retire back to his farm. I'm sure you can think of other examples too. Not so many that we'd ever want a King, but enough for some small measure of sneaking nostalgia to wink in and out of our imaginations.

7. The King Was Never Dead, The Long-Lived King

But why should Aquaman be a king?

Well, part of that is the emotional truth that he's been a King, or an ex-King, for as long as I've known him. I have an intractable fan's heart. Unless I can be convinced that a better solution exists, I'm happy to stay with an established, familiar fact.

And being a King shouldn't stop Arthur playing most if not all of the other roles that he's played in his time. He can still be a superhero, still be a Justice Leaguer, still engage in quests, still play the lone wolf when occasion demands.

But being a King is something few other characters can convincingly be. For Arthur, being King is part of his history. It's a struggle for a creator to remove the imprint of monarch from Arthur Curry's nature: at best after the attentions of the revisionist creator, he's still an ex-King. The label of King doesn't fade, and Aquaman will remain King of The Seven Seas even if not of Atlantis. There's no way to remove him from his past. The kingship will always be there, and if ignored, it'll just be the elephant in the room. It's a major character marker, a unique seller point, a plot-generator, a familiar trope of the hero's identity; it's the character element that keeps on generating plot point after plot point.

Consider again the story possibilities inherent in Morrison's speech quoted earlier in this entry;

"Sworn protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states. My territory surrounds every continent on the planet. I rule most of this planet's surface and almost all of its depths. So don't even think about picking a fight with the King Of Atlantis."

And that Aquaman is nobodies' victim; not necessarily some gruff Conanesque figure, nor a '50s American suburban surrogate smiling his way through fishy adventures, but someone with elements of both. He needs no faux-grimness, no cruel exiles, no broken families, no physical mutilations to mark him out as unique or special. He already is unique and special. He's already a super-hero, and he's alot more too.

He's Aquaman and he's the King.

To be continued in Points On A Curve No 3, where we'll take a little trip to Atlantis to consider why any reader should ever want to go there. And in Points On A Curve No 4, we'll question what kind of man Aquaman is , and therefore what kind of King he would be.



Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Points On A Curve No 1: Finding My Aquaman Amongst All That Continuity

01 Heroes & How We Wish We Could Swim, Like The Dolphins Can Swim

From the epilogue to "From Democrats To Kings" by Michael Scott;

"As I write, Greek TV is hosting a popular competition for the greatest Greek in history. It's a strong likelihood that Alexander the Great will win hands down. His figure, his story, sums up a lot of what Greeks like to think is best about Greece, just as Britain chose Winston Churchill in its 2003 greatest Briton competition, as America might choose Martin Luther King, or South Africa Nelson Mandela. We choose these figures scattered through history, because they represent the essence of who we are, or want to be, today. Though we can't choose our own parents, we can make choices about the kind of historical examples we want to guide us in our future."

And, it's worth adding, as well as choosing particular figures to guide us in our future, we also pick certain aspects of those figures. We choose the defiant Winston Churchill of May 1940, facing down the defeatists in his own war cabinet while refusing to surrender to Nazism, but we try to forget the Churchill of 1919 who supported an RAF request to drop poison gas on Kurdish tribesmen. ("I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.") We pick Alexander the victor at The Battle of Issus and forget Alexander the drunkard, the murderer of Cleitus The Black.

2. Remaking The Batman: the Fan-Not-Fan Approach

When the sales of the Batman titles flatlined following the decline of "Bat-Mania" and the cancellation of the Adam West TV series, Julius Schwartz sought out Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams to revamp the character. Adam's visual take on the Batman, already gaining plaudits in the pages of "The Brave Of The Bold", sat well with Schwartz and O'Neal's desire, in the words of the former, to " ... go back to the way it used to be." In essence, this was the first high-profile revamping of a classic headline DC character in which something of the fan mentality was present in the decision-making process. Previous attempts by DC Comics to update older superhero properties in their library had very often involved dramatic changes in character's secret identities, costumes and sometimes, as in the case of The Atom, even a total makeover of the super-heroes' powers. But the revamping of "the Batman" into "The Batman" was directly inspired not by what the DC editors and writers thought the new audiences would buy so much as by a careful reading of the first year or so of Batman's appearances in "Detective Comics" and "Batman". The first tales by Kane and Finger and Robinson thereby took on the then-unfamiliar status of a comic-book urtext, from which new generations of creators could deduce fundamental truths about the Batman. No longer would editors, writers and artists feel free to completely ignore the comic books of the past; those books were now conceived of as having, to one degree or another, permanantly pertinant rules for future developments. No more would old characters be utterly revamped as if their original appearances - indeed, most if not all of their appearances - were of no importance. As more and more time past, the old reams of fourty and fifty and sixty and seventy years of comic books began to take on the status of super-hero holy writ, and only by engaging with that ever-massively-increasing corpus of material could creators justify innovation.

Unlike some later creative teams, however, Schwartz and his men still felt quite free to pick and choose which elements they wanted from the original Batman tales, their intentions being no more bound by the original texts than their desire, in O'Neil's words to Les Daniels, to " ... simply take it back to where it started." Their reinvention never was intended to mean literally returning Batman to his earliest roots. Batman had begun his career by regularly throwing henchmen off roofs, punching criminal masterminds like 'Alfred Stryker' into acid tanks, and even wielding a gun to fire silver bullets into vampires. There would be none of that in the new take. Nor, despite the reputed return to first principles, would The Batman loose his gloves, or the yellow oval around his chest insignia. Back to basics wasn't, of course, a literal policy. They took what they liked and discarded the rest.

What's most important here is that O'Neil never felt he needed to try to explain away this new take in the pages of the comics. It was a simple matter of introducing this Batman and getting on with it. There was no attempt to devise a continuity explanation, no transition scenes explaining how the Batman became more fearsome and violent. It was as if The Batman had always been this way. Essentially, the urtext had been respected and influential, but the already substantial mass of Batman tales never were integrated into the new direction. It was if the creators didn't care whether those tales were canon or not. They had what they wanted, "The Batman", and they were free with their relatively uncluttered new canvas to head off wherever they wanted to go. They had no cares about contradicting anything that had gone before ouside of the absolute basics of the Batman mythos. It's a kind of fresh start undreamt of today.

And I'm sure that Schwartz and his team never questioned, never even considered, that their new-and-yet-old Batman would one day, perhaps very soon, be replaced by another long-eared costumed detective fresh off the reinterpretation production line, one which would also appear out of the blue, without explanation, and without a need for one. As O'Neil would later say; "There is no right way to do this character any more than there is one right way to do Hamlet ... ".


Similarly, there is obviously more than "one right way to do" Aquaman.

But what if, after almost 70 years of his existence in comic books, there is no fundamental urtext for Aquaman? What if there is no single coherent body of work from which to abstract and re-abstract the Sea King for today, and tomorrow?

What if there's an Aquaman, what if there's a legion of Aquamen, but no "The Aquaman"?

4. The Imposed Creativity Of Comic-Book Poverty

For the first 20 years or so of my comic-buying life, it was a difficult business simply getting hold of my favourite books. The distribution of comics from America to Britain was geographically spotty and generally inconsistent. There was no guarantee at all that next month's issue would ever appear. Special formats, such as Treasuries and Annuals, were almost never to be seen. And there were years in the 1970s when the major Marvel titles from America weren't distributed at all, reportedly because Marvel UK was soon going to have rely on those issues for their black-and-white reprints.

And if it was hard to consistently find American comics in the 1970s, it was worse in the '60s, and the '50s, blighted by a fearsome moral panic against "horror" comics, were something of a desert.( That didn't just mean that comics were relatively thin on the ground. Back issues were, as a consequence, rare too. MK from the estimable Out Of This World Blog wrote; " .. on the extremely rare occasion when I found a pre-'59er, it was like finding some ancient treasure. I remember getting a couple of 1957 Hopalong Cassidy comics from a second hand bookshop down by the Angel, and almost fainted with excitement!") On occasion, superhero stories appeared in various reprint books from different companies, out of sequence and often awkwardly edited from their original appearances.

This meant that British readers rarely had the opportunity to see how characters progressed and developed as intended over a period of time. Instead, we would have to piece together a mosaic-like impression of characters and their interactions from a wide variety of often incomplete and disparate sources. No two young readers would be able to have exactly the same understanding of any given hero, or even of that hero's history. (In some cases, such as the "Hero For Hire" comic from the early '70s, no single early issue was ever officially distributed, and there was nothing but a great gaping hole in our knowledge, filled out in small part through snippets of information in adverts, front cover pictures, and guest spots.)

I don't think that this poor distribution was in any way a bad thing, though it undoubtedly felt like it at the time. It certainly made each comic that could be found feel very special indeed, and each sequence of comics that could be pieced together became a real achievement. And the absence of so many comics, of so much information, necessitated creativity on the part of the reader. Those story-lines had to be imagined, those inconsistencies had to be mentally managed and resolved. I can't help but think that this was a really involving and stimulating way to think about comics, quite different from the more 'continuity-determined' understanding which consistent distribution and fan-culture encourages. And I wonder if the success in America of British writers such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman didn't in some small way stem from these inconsistencies of distribution, from the fact that these writers had already been forced as a matter of course to recreate in part the DC and Marvel Universes when they were younger.

5. Aquaman-No-Aquaman

I've always had an immense fondness for Aquaman, but I'd find it hard to be able to give even the vaguest logical explanation of why that should be. I saw but one copy of the sea-king's first solo book in the years before I was almost out of my teens, and that was a brief glance at a comic held by a fellow Cub Scout who delighted in never swapping or sharing his cherished darlings; perhaps that very scarcity and denial explains the inexplicable affection I have for the King Of Atlantis.

But the truth is that, even when later I collected every single Aquaman title and guest shot and team appearance I could, I never found a story about the character that I could hold up and say "You see! This is why Aquaman is such a great hero!" This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy many of those stories, and much of the art by the likes of Nick Cardy, Ramoda Fradon, Jim Aparo and Neal Adams I remain impressed by even to this day. But there's no equivalent for Aquaman of "The Dark Knight Returns" or "Absolute Superman", or even of a run of issues that equals, for example, the Steve Engelhart or Ed Brubaker takes on Captain America. Aquaman's history has been of one of engagingly competent stories, occasionally spectacular appearances in other titles, and an almost impossible inability on anyone's part to incorporate the character and his history into a take on "Aquaman" which would lastingly capture a wider audience.

If I'm being honest with myself, I don't suppose that I can even say that I prefer the Aquaman of one era to that of another. The early stories are charming but often bland, the later ones become progressively more coloured by angst and re-vamps, until Aquaman isn't even Aquaman anymore. I really am partial to Aquaman, but there's never been an "Aquaman" for me.

It could rightly be said, therefore, that I don't actually like Aquaman at all. After all, I'd couldn't be a fan of Sherlock Holmes if I was lukewarm about the overwhelming majority of his appearances, if I had never believed that his character was consistently well-defined or involving enough. But I don't believe that's how we all grow to love certain comic books and certain comic book characters. I think there's a more natural and creative way that we engage with them. We take the images and the words that appeal to us and we - consciously and unconsciously - join up the dots to create, for example, an "Aquaman" that never existed, and never will, outside of our heads, the Aquaman against which the "real" Aquaman will always be measured, a personal Platonic ideal Aquaman.

Here then, by way of illustration, will be "my" Aquaman, and it's a character composed of brief comic book moments, images taken somewhat out of context, and suppositions barely supported by evidence. On reflection, this Aquaman bears no relation to any canon, not of today or any past era, and it ignores great swathes of work by very able creators; not because their work was poor, but because it didn't strike a chord with me, or perhaps even because I never read their work. My Aquaman isn't owned by any corporation, open to any critic's challenge, or amendable as a concept even by myself.

Which, counter-intuitively, makes "my" Aquaman all the more real to me.

To be continued in: Points On A Curve No 2: Aquaman the King Is Not Dead, Aquaman the King Is Dead


Thursday, 18 February 2010

Ode To Joy: When Broken Backs Don't Get You No Respect, Batman, And Yet Mad Love Does


I once taught with a bloke from Manchester who'd worked behind the bar of The Hacienda while he was an always-broke student at University there, back then in the long-ago early 1990s. When I asked him if the club had been as wild as a thousand articles and a hundred books would have it, he said - and I really can hear him say this - "Mate, you don't know the half of it." In Peter Hook's tragicomedy of an autobiographical memoir "The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club", he describes one typical Saturday night in the home of Baggy and Acid House, The Roses and The Mondays. Substantially seasoned with cannabis, speed, ecstasy, cocaine and a staggeringly ferocious intake of alcohol, Hook pursues his seven-days-a-week programme of constantly "'avin' it LARGE" as if desperate not to miss an illicit pleasure which he might one day record in an almost-tell-all bestseller.

"Where were we? Right, lines. I bring out the charlie, chop them out and survey the madness; a sea of hands, flashing lights, all moving to the bang, bang, bang of the bass drum. God, it's good to be alive .... "

Candi Stanton's "You Got The Love" on the turntable. A literally world-famous club full to the gills. Any drink he wants from behind the bar, in any quantity. The lights, the soundsystem, the drugs, the mates, the scene, the gangster-bouncer as a bodyguard, and his own bucket in the kitchen to piss in since the club toilets were always full.

Though it was swallowing millions of Hook's royalties from his Joy Division and New Order albums, and though those were millions he could never get back, The Hacienda was his club.


There was a time when the Batman editorial office at DC had the sensational idea to break The Batman's back. And when this awful event finally occured, they had as the back-breaker the super-villian Bane, who was, in effect, a Mexican wrestler addicted to a super-steroid which pumped up his muscles so he could cripple super-heroes. In a marketplace where Superman's recent death had sent his titles' sales up and through the roof, there must have been a sense of "What terrible thing can we do to The Batman in order to raise sales too?". Given that death had so recently been taken off the board of the "cruelty to costumed crime-fighters" options, it must have seemed peversely reasonable to opt for breaking Batman's back instead.

Me, I thought it was a daft decision. Superman is superpowered. Death was no great obstacle for him; he'd inevitably develop super-ressurection breath or some-such power to lift the great heavy lid of his coffin from the inside. It was implicit in Superman's history that there was no fate so awful and final that he couldn't overcome. But the conceit of The Batman is that he's just an ordinary guy who's worked incredibly hard to become excellent at everything. Being ordinary, in an utterly abnormal sense of 'normal', is central to much of his appeal. Readers like to imagine that they could have been The Batman if only they'd applied themselves, if only they too had been lucky enough to have their parents gunned down by Joe Chill before them, that crucial motivational tool. Superman, we're told, is not a self-made man, and therefore less of a figure whom audiences can associate with. * He can survive just about anything. But The Batman, he's supposed to be like us. If you prick him, he certainly does bleed. And though he can achieve quite frankly impossible achievements, he must at least remain mortal. That's who he is. If you break his back, his back should stay broken. Or he's not The Batman, who we could all have become if only ...

How the Batman office struggled to move their hero and victim into the torture chamber for his maiming. I found it wonderfully amusing to watch as the plot of these stories piled on agony after agony after agony, as if the creators believed that The Batman couldn't possibly be defeated until he was utterly mentally and physically shattered. They believed so much in the myth of The Batman that they felt they had to destroy him first before they could so fundamentally wound him. As if The Batman himself refused to be so shattered until the Batman office all held him down and did the wretched business themselves, while he stared them in the eye with no fear and a great deal of contempt.

If The Batman was too good a fighter to suffer his back being broken by a clown of a wrestler, so I imagine the argument must have gone, then The Batman would have to be weakened and then utterly exhausted from a string of one-after-another-after-another super-villian attacks. If The Batman was inherently too bright to allow himself to be driven to exhaustion and towards his own extinction, for surely The Batman would grasp the concept of a rest-break, innocents had to be shovelled into peril in the plot. And in this way the plot closed around not just The Batman, but the very idea of The Batman itself.

* Me, if I can imagine pulling on the Bat-ears and the Bat-Boots, and training 22 hours a day for 16 years or so to earn the right to do so, then I can imagine time unravelling backwards and my soul being lifted out of my father's loins and transported by reverse-chrono Zeta-Beam to Krypton and the loins of Jor-El, ready to be born as Superman. The first scenario is in no way less ridiculous than the second.


My favourite version of the Duke Ellington/Bob Russell standard "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is Mose Allison's reading of it from 1958. It's an easy song to get over-enthusiastic with, which tends to leave the listener with the impression that not getting around much anymore is a source of some joy. But slow the tempo far too down and the melody sags; the lyric's knowing awareness of regret becomes a depressed self-indulgence, a plea for the listener to supplement the singer's own excess of self-pity with some pity of their own.

Mose's reading is a masterpiece in approximating, if deliberately not achieving, insouciance. He's thought about the lyric. He knows his voice is a light frothy confection, so pathos is best avoided, as is swinging hard, since that's what others have done before him. So he keeps the tempo high, making sure it never races away from him, and with nothing but his piano and voice to get between the singer and the song, he decides to leave the sub-text alone and tell the story straight. And since the song's narrator is obviously a grown-up, so is Mose's version of the tale; he's not crying through the days because his love-affair's over. (The lyric's most emotive phrase is "I just couldn't bear it without you", but since he didn't visit the club where sweet memories lurked, he's getting by.) It obviously doesn't cheer him up that he lost his lover, but he's got a strategy to carry him through, and the key is that it does carry him through. Anywhere they used to go, he avoids. He's really not making that big deal of things. Yes, it's not great, but it's better not to feel blue than to indulge in regret. In his hands and vocal chords, it's that rarest of love-songs, the song about the lover who isn't going to succumb to self-pity. It's a song about how to survive a broken heart, and how survival itself is often not as bad as might be feared.

"Darling I guess my mind is more at ease, but, nevertheless, why stir up memories?"

There's even a hint in Mose's cheerful tone that the song's narrator is quite pleased with himself, given that he's getting by. And since the whole performance has been played so artfully straight, since the lyric and the melody have been trusted, and the listener trusted too, we feel that the song's subject might actually deserve some empathy for his broken heart, even as we won't insult him with our sympathy. He's clearly better than that.


In Mark Kermode's memoir of his career as a film critic "It's Only A Movie", he explains the epipheny which struck him when he wasn't sacked from a radio programme helmed by Danny Baker after fiercely disagreeing with him:

"... there is nothing to be gained from moderating your opinions because you think it will please those around you. It won't. In a world where every lazy hack falls back on the old 'if you liked that, then you'll love this' cliche, the only thing a critic has to justify their essentially parasitic existence is the belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong. Sod cultural studies and all that non-judgemental aesthetc relativity clap-trap - the Leavisites were right! There really is such a thing as good and bad art."


When Bane finally held The Batman over his Mexican wrestler's head and smashed The Batman down over his Mexican wrestler's knee, the scene was designed and drawn to be as explicit, as unsubtle, as stomach-turningly literal, as it could possibly be. It was as if the Batman editiorial office didn't believe that the readers could empathise with a simple back-breaking - what's a mere common breaking of a back? - unless all ambiguity, taste and restraint had been artlessly removed from the depiction of Bruce Wayne's near-end. And so it was. You can see the picture above, so offensively unsubtle and so irredeemably profane, that all I could think was: "Oh, I bet that just stings."

Because, you see, I didn't, and couldn't, believe that it had happened. It was too impossible, too plain nasty, to believe, as if my mother had been shot and killed by a UFO before my eyes. As much as I love my Mother, and I surely do, the sheer impossibility of that happening would, in the unlikely event it did, reduce me to tears of laughter and disbelief. I might have accepted the fact that something remarkable and awful had happened to her if it had been reported to me, if a blurred phone photo caught something of the killing beam flailing through her, if a policeman had appeared at the door and said in shocked tones that "something had happened".

But it was so explicit and unnecessary that I knew it hadn't happened, because it was ugly and stupid. And The Batman's too bright and able to let it happen, anyway. And so away the comic went, not with angry throw, but with an apathetic toss. And I thought, at least Sherlock Holmes took Moriaty with him. He wasn't thrown into the Reichenbach Falls by a Mexican wrestler who watched him fall, glee and contempt showing through the holes in his Mexican Wrestler mask.


Ramona Fradon was never a fashionable artist. Her style was closer to the cartoony schools associated with romance comics or funny-animal books than to the so-called realistic style which began its rise to dominate the genre in the mid-to-late 1960s. In fact, Fradon never enjoyed drawing superheroes, which was a shame, for her career coincided with the market collapsing into a superhero comic ghetto. Within that ghetto, however, she was several times commissioned to work on properties more associated with the sensibilities of younger readers, such as her four year run on DC Comics "Super-Friends", which, though still all about those unappealling superheroes, were held to be more appropriate to her gentle, friendly designs and lines.

The "Super-Friends", based on the Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon, was almost universally seen by comic book fans, if not the average comic book reader, as childish and out-of-continuity. The more rabid fans of the 'realistic' school of superhero comics - as if a faux-realist approach to the adventures of flying men and women who punch each other can ever be considered entirely grown up - wanted something that seemed to take itself more seriously. (And for 'serious', read 'violent' and 'pretentious' and 'adolescent'.) But for my money it's a shame that some folks never read "Super-Friends". The scripts, especially when written by E. Nelson Bridwell, were far more continuity-conscious than the fanboy critics would ever have believed, and were - far more importantly - competently-plotted and respectful of the characters involved.

But most importantly, they missed what for my money is the most impressive, most convincing depiction of Bruce Wayne in the history of the alter ego's existence. It's on the splash page to "Super Friends" # 14, and it took me a while to notice it because it's so subtly done. In the splash, Ramona Fradon isn't showing off with her drawing, she's not calling attention to it, and she's not designing it to be so flashy that she can sell off the original art afterwards: she's modestly and competently establishing the locale, the dramatis personae, and the hidden secret identity of Wayne. All of these things she effortlessly, if not spectacularly, achieves. But then, the reader might look again and might notice the way in which Wayne is portrayed as well as the fact of his presence. He's shown dominating the small, well-healed group gathered at a dinner table at the "fabulous Carousel Restaurant in the Wayne Building". He's a big man, straight-backed, and that wonderful square jaw is fully on display, prominent but not ridiculous. But then, above that chin, is a smile, the confident smile of a man born to and comfortable with power. This is man absolutely at ease, as influential and charming as George Clooney would seem to be if playing a mighty socialite-industrialist, if he had a script worth the reciting. This Bruce Wayne, of all Bruce Waynes, would be irresistable to so many women, would command the respect of men, as well as being irresistable to quite a few of them too, would be excellent as a host, and inspiring as a boss, and, quite frankly, all things to most people. (Or at least that's how it would seem to anyone in his presence. We know there might be unexpected aspects to Mr Wayne that could compromise the impression of ease he gives if he was ever to truly get to know anyone outside his inner circle.)

This was not the Bruce Wayne so often seen in comics, and it still isn't. Particularly as the view has become more accepted that Bruce Wayne is a front for the Batman rather than vice-versa, Bruce Wayne has been associated in scripts with reluctant and intermittant forays into society, usually quickly terminated when danger calls or key information has been collected. And we tend to see these social encounters through the eyes of a Wayne who hates being there and wants to be away. All of which makes him seem rather manipulative, and dismissively cruel to the women who flirt with him, who usually seem to be shown as fools, and also rather weak. It's as if he is a wall-flower forced to lead the first waltz.

But here we see Bruce Wayne as the world sees him, and here is the evidence of how intoxicating his presence must be. This is my room, says the body language of this Bruce, and I will now put you at ease while we entertain each other. It's not ego that he radiates, but charm, and confidence. As indeed Bruce Wayne would have to, for if he's just a front for The Batman, at the very least he should be a damn good one.

Fradon's skill can be emphasised with a glance at the second panel of this story. There Bruce has been relegated to the back of the scene, though the table is still obviously his, but he's so relaxed in his power that he's leaning back against his chair. He's not coiled for action, he's not holding onto a drink, frowning, getting ready to leap backwards, or any of the other stances he's often shackled with. He's relaxing, and he's still impressive. That's something so many superhero artists can't do with their subjects, something that they haven't learnt to do and probably don't really want to do. (Even when showing superheros at rest, in costume or out, there's often a terrible posed quality about their repose, with all the verisimilitude of underwear models pretending to be laughing and relaxed while a stranger photographs them in their posing pouches.)

But Fradon can do this, because she's learnt to draw people, and her work serves nothing but the story, and she doesn't show off with her artwork, so her characters don't either; they have a reality of their own because of, and not despite, her cartoony style.


I've rarely seen a superhero fight where I winced with shock or bit my lip with sympathy when a character got hurt. Water-towers might be dropped on, say, Spider-Man, but the impact never seemed to raise much sympathy with me. Intellectually, I knew that Spider-Man was in pain, and that he'd have to raise his game to survive, but survive I was sure he would. Drop a mountain on Thor, or a planet on Superman, and I always knew the fisty-cuffs were purely plot engines, designed to move a story on or bring a story to a close. The Thing gets hit by The Hulk, which sets up the Hulk's escape and The Thing's sense of emascualtion. Fights were technical things. They didn't involve me, so they didn't make me jump, or wince, or wonder what could possibly happen next. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but as rule, it holds.

In fact, I was never drawn to violence at all. To those who argued that all the fighting in comic books would brutalise their readers, I always wanted to show them what I did whenever fights broke out around me. I read more comic books than anybody I ever knew, so behaviourist logic would seem to condemn me to a life as a punch-loving empathy-diminished victim. But that's not what happened whenever violence broke out around me.

We can all recall how children so often adore the spectacle of the punch-up. Word would pass that so-and-so was going to clout some unfortunate somebody else, a somebody else who'd usually be a far less good fighter than the aggressor. That's what schoolground fights nearly always were: there was the one who could punch doing the punching, and the one that couldn't punch so good, or at all, doing the being-punched and suffering. The venue for the ambush would be set, the information passed, the crowd waiting to encircle the gladiator and his clawless prey. Then the spectator's circle would close to trap the victim, and the infliction of pain and humiliation would begin. (This only happened to me in a designated role as 'victim' twice. I was too big and too good at fighting to permit a walkover, so easier prey were usually settled on instead of me. And both times I was designated the victim and encircled I won, and pretty comfortably too. And hated every moment and never felt proud, though it always felt better than losing.) I would never stay to watch the champion pummel the not-challenger. I never did. I read more comic books than probably every one else in the school, but all they did was intensify my loathing for violence. Comic books showed what bullies the violent were, and under slogans such as the well-felt but somewhat naive "Make War No More", focused on heroes who would prefer not to fight, and who'd have to be pushed into a very tight corner before they balled their fists and came out slugging.

That trope of super-hero comics, that the costumed protagonist only lashes out when it's a gesture of last resort, when escape is impossible or when innocents are threatened, said to me that violence was a reluctantly-adopted means to my costumed role models, and never an end. (At least it was until Wolverine appeared, and where Wolverine was concerned, I was with Cyclops.) So, violence was never a casual pleasure to me, in classroom or comic book pages.

Indeed, the only form of violence I could ever enjoy, and which actively involved me to the degree that I would indeed wince, and groan, and look away and quickly back again, was the violence of cartoons, of Chuck Jones and his wonderful little epics. How strange that my anticipation and my empathy was engaged by the only fictional characters for whom violence has at worst short-term consequences and whose resemblence to human beings is limited in so many ways. That rather shattered the model that violence was thrilling and desensitising. I enjoyed the violence in Wily E. Coyote's endlessly futile pursuits of the Roadrunner because I knew the violence was a beat in the telling of a finely-tuned joke. Everything in Chuck Jones' cartoons was part of the joke. There was no waste, no showing off, no faux-realism, no lack of skill or competence or control on the part of his fellow animators. The characters were simple, but effective for the purposes of the gags they played their roles in. The jokes were apparently banal, but it took the skill of a master to choregraph them with such precision that they became something splendid.

And if The Roadrunner had ever broken Wily E. Coyote's back over his spindly knee, I would have felt it, really felt it. I would have flinched, and laughed, and I'd have wanted to know what came next, what new gag this was the gateway to.

"Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is undoubtedly a great popular song, and I make great claims for Mose Allison's cover of it, but there's not often an obvious example of a single definitive version of a great song, and there isn't one here. So, though Mose's one is the one for me if there's only one I'm going to get, I know there's a great deal more fine versions than just his. And if I saved the one take on my hard-drive, I'd miss, say, the sheer elegance of Ella Fitzgerald's various versions, and miss the way that she finds it impossible to hide her longing for the man she's lost. I'd miss laughing along with Bobby Darin's very determined attempt to out-Las Vegas Frank Sinatra. And I'd miss mouth-parping in disharmony with Sonny Criss's exuberant 1963 take, where his racing alto saxophone runs quickly escape any reference to the meaning of Russell's lyric. But then, the song was a mid-swing era instrumental years before the lyric was crafted onto it. And Criss just seems to be having such fun. I'd miss that sense of sheer what-the-hell-let's-try-it-this-way-too that he chased around the studio.

In truth, the more sturdy and traditional and able a song's construction, the more it's capable of being stretched this way and that without getting too bent out of shape. But The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" would be a challenge for anybody to outdo. Strip away the production and there's not much of a song there to reinterpret.*

So where there's a classic song on offer, you just need to bring some honest skill to the microphone and some respect for the fundamentals of its song-DNA. Just like Mose Allison did. That's all a classic needs.

* But then, why would anyone want to strip away the production, except for reasons of musical archeaology? It's a fantastic record, psychedelic in the truest and best sense of the word, and that's that.


Peter Hook may have owned The Hacienda, but he didn't control the space within its doors, or immediately before its doors. You would think that he could at least walk anywhere inside The Hacienda, for example, but as he describes:

"The alcoves are famous. Each contains a different gang, but we call this particular one Hell. This is gang-member territory. If you wander in without approval you get a slap and you're shoved back out if you're lucky. Even I won't go there without Cormac or Twinny ... Travis takes ages, comes back with a bloody nose, says they've fucked him right off. I'm angry now, so I storm off to the door to get hold of Paul or Damien, shouting "How long do we have to put up with this ...?"

At the public heart of The Hacienda in its later years was the loved-up wonderland of the dancefloor. But shift away from the spectacle and relative safety there, and, as the shadows darkened, Manchester's gang culture had staked out the club's territory as its own. There the apparently inclusive and democratic space promised by the casual ideologies of Acid House and Madchester gave way to far harsher realities of power. Gangsters established their own spaces with their own rules. Outside the club, the bouncers fought with dangers real and imagined, often acting as gangsters in their own lights, and yet the violence was never kept outside the club once the gangs understood what they could gain from moving in. The drugs that fuelled so much of the fun also fuelled the gangster's power, and ate away the happy space that was The Hacienda's original purpose.

"At first the gangsters were customers, joining in with the hugging and the general togetherness. But over a period time they sussed out how much they could earn if they took over."

What interests me the most about this is the picture of a social, chemical, and physical environment which involves and excites the punters there, while at the same time fuelling the very forces which will bring that environment to its knees. Out there on the dance floor, The Hacienda was the night of choice for the Madchester generation, or the generation that'd been told it was that. The whole culture of dance post-1987 celebrated an unlikely, and dangerously unstable, fusion of '60s drug-fuelled utopianism and the Scally-lad's culture, albeit a lad's culture temporarily chilled out by Ecstacy. But the drugs and the lads were powerful enough to detach Acid House from the mainstream of society without being strong enough to protect it from the sharks who lived out there beyond the mainstream. With an ever-developing power and an ever-increasing force, that happy-laddy world that the Hacienda created and fed off was eaten out from the inside by people who really were outsiders, who really were lads, who didn't play with drugs so much as make a serious business of them, and didn't affect the cause of social revolution so much as brutalise anyone who threatened their power.


Batman got better. The details were always vague to me, There was a Shondra Kinsolving with healing powers, whatever they might be, and it's true that millionaires can alway afford excellent medical care, so there must have been some world-famous surgeons involved, or something. And within a few years, The Batman, the Bruce Wayne Batman, was prowling the roof-tops again, though I no longer believed that was The Batman at all. He could have had the skin-stripped leg of the dead Robin inserted into his back to give him something solid to lean on there and I still couldn't have believed in the whole business less. I didn't believe that his back was broken. So how it could be healed again? I could no more accept than that I could swallow Sherlock Homes being given a ransom note, the letters of whose words were each cut out from different newspapers, leading him to declare to Watson that he didn't have the faintest where these fiddly little letters-things came from, so perhaps Watson could look it all up on Google?


I really think Mark Kermode's wrong about there being objectively good and bad art. Art is too obviously in the eye of the beholder. It's a debate too one-eyed to even engage in here. But I'm not sure that Kermode is really arguing that he can be right about a movie being terrible when somebody else adores it. I think what he's saying is that we must act as if we were right when we evaluate art, that we have an obligation to be passionate and opinionated and well-informed. It's not the same as being right, after all, to play the role of the critic who is convinced of the truth of their own opinion.

And Kermode says as much in many different places in his book. He discusses how he was wrong in his original poor opinion of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet", and how engaging with the opinions of other critics helped to sharpen his own thinking and even change his mind. He admits that this wasn't an easy business, changing his mind, but worse was to come for his ego;

"It's one thing to admit that all criticism is subjective, but quite another to accept that each individual subject is usually far too confused to understand their own personal responses, let alone anyone else's."

So, no, there's no good art or bad art, no right or wrong opinions, and reviewers run the risk of not even knowing their minds, let only correctly applying them to the work of others.

But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try.


Imagine trying to nail down a definitive Batman. There's no definitive Batman. Could you ignore the first stories from the team led by Bob Kane, their revolver-wearing Batman, who sat on an gyrocopter next to a female vampire heading off into impossible danger? The happy cavalier of Dick Sprang's day, volting absurdly massive props of everyday objects? Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil's back to basics Batman, creating something new and threatening out of Kane's first run at the character? The Batman of Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rodgers, or Frank Miller? Chuck Dixon or Frank Robbins, Alan Grant or Alan Moore?

In Neil Gaiman's "Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?", all of these Batmans are "The Batman", one bleeds into the other and none of them are more fundamentally The Batman than any other. Instead, in finding some common ground between all the character's incarnations, Gaiman reduces our man to the simplest of qualities:

"I'm The Batman. I protect the city. I rescue people. I investigate crimes. I guard the innocent. I correct the guilty."

So, anyone wearing the Bat-Ears, as long he can tick the few boxes above, is The Batman. If Bane pulls the Bat-Ears over his wrestler's mask and decides to "protect the city", and so on, then he could be "The Batman" too. And he could be. I doubt I'd buy the action figure, but I doubt I'd be the target audience anyway. The Batman, this Batman, would continue without my support.

Batman's not my property. I don't even think he's real.


I have thought alot about Hook's Hacienda, with its happy dancers encircled by the gangsters in the shadows, since I read his book. I've always been fascinated by those moments when a city becomes "the city", the place where the music changes, and the culture shifts, and everyone wishes they were, or had been, there. Swinging London. The San Francisco Sound. Madchester. It always seems so much fun, to stand in the eye of the hurricane and see everything mutate around you.

But I didn't expect to find myself thinking about superhero comics when I was imagining what it'd be like to have been there in FAC 51. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise. I'm always thinking about superhero comics. But there was something there, in the clubland of Indie Overcoats and Acid flares, when I thought how attractive being among the ordinary clubbers on that dancefloor seemed. How colourful I imagined those dancers to be, and yet there were gangsters around them in the alcoves. It took a while, but eventually I realised I was channelling memories of Alan Moore and Don Simpson's "In Pictopia", first published almost 25 years ago, by chance the year The Hacienda's fortunes really started to change as it stumbled towards what the press would label Acid House.

"In Pictopia" is, in brief, a tale of how superheroes take over Pictopia, a town previously inhabited by a wide spectrum of cartoon characters, from the funny animals living in The Funnies Ghetto to the newspaper strip leads drinking in Captain Billy's. But things are changing swiftly in Pictopia. The super-heroes are taking over, muscle-bound, fractious, and cruel. The whole landscape is trasforming itself as the costumed brigade rises to power. Where there were realistic cops and cartoon ones, where there were musical cartoons and romance heroines, now there's just capes and lycra.

"This city's changing, and some thing's don't fit the continuity anymore."

The metaphor is an obvious one, but it's no less affecting despite that. Moore's firing up yet another warning that the super-heroes have taken over, and that anything that isn't superheroes is disappearing under the scorched earth policy affected by the mainstream publishers. It's not as if Moore hates super-heroes. The disillusioned narrator of "In Pictopia" expresses a fondness for his friend Flexible Flynn, a Plastic Man analogue, so it's not as if Moore despises all costumed heroes. But Moore saw more clearly than most that a business that's nothing but superheroes will inevitably be an uglier place than the cartoon diversity that came before. And it isn't long before Flexible Flynn is replaced by a brute of a muscle man, bearing the same name but carrying none of his kindness or charm.

And sometimes, where I imagine the Friday night punters on the dancefloor of the Hacienda, I see the colourful and innocent superheroes of the past. They look splendid as the dry ice billows around them and the lights strobe across them. They look even better because there aren't that many of them. But the more they dance, the more of them appear, and then the competition begins. The strongest, the most brutal, the most gaudy, all elbowing each other out of the way,
"all moving to the bang, bang, bang of the bass drum."
And from the shadows of the alcoves, even uglier costumes are sculking in and out of the lights. The villains who've been updated so that they can compete with their now-hyper-powered opponents, the bystanders who've become more hostile, the supporting characters who are far more angst-written and irrational than before. The super-heroes who are more super and less heroic with every passing month.

It's not a precise parallel with The Hacienda, if course it isn't. But the emotional sense of it feels right to me. The apparent innocence of the Acid House dancers carried with it the laddism and appetite for illicit substances that were to bring it down. And superheroes were once an innocent breed, occasionally very popular, but just one part of a complex cartoon eco-system. And they were better that way. The Batman and Superman were all the more wonderful, all the more special and unique, when they stood beside so many alternative genres of cartoons. Now the dancefloor, and the alcoves too, often seem full of nothing except like superheroes. There's just so many of the damn things. And not only are there so many of them, there's so many different versions of each of them. And just as the gangsters killed The Hacienda, the super-heroes sometimes seem to me to have chocked the life out the mainstream.

It's hardly a new thought. But it's still a pertinent one. Just because the argument is long-standing, and just because it hasn't been resolved in favour of those who proposed it, doesn't mean it's wrong.

Sometimes I wish there was just one Batman, one Superman, one Spider-Man. Perhaps six or seven more. I wish the whole business was bankrupt, the publisher's buildings being pulled down, and the space cleared for something else. Lots of something elses. None of them in tights. Not one cape at all.

But the dancers keep on dancing, and some of them dance really well, arms in the air, eyes looking a little wild, chewing, and clutching onto their water bottles for all they're worth.


For all of the reasons given above, and for so many other reasons too, therefore, it must be obvious and beyond argument that the definitive The Batman, and the definitive The Batman adventure, is "The Batman: Mad Love", by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm.